Whatever Happened To All Souls' Day?

Forgetting the faithful departed is to become strangers to ourselves

Today is All Souls’ Day on the Western Christian calendar, the day in which Christians recall all their dead. Or used to, anyway. Though raised nominally Christian, I didn’t know what All Souls’ Day was until I became a Catholic in my mid-twenties, and even then it wasn’t a big deal. All Saints’ Day (November 1) is observed, however modestly, but I am not aware of anybody who observes All Souls’ Day. In New Orleans, it used to be a tradition that families would go clean the tombs of their departed on All Saints’ Day, in preparation for All Souls’, but I don’t know if that still happens. The image above is from a short video a young priest in the Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux made to explain the importance of All Souls’ Day. I wonder how many Catholics down the bayou went to the cemeteries today. Though I live in south Louisiana, I’m in the culturally Protestant part. It’s just another day for us.

The English historian Eleanor Parker says that things were different before the Reformation. Excerpt:

By the later Middle Ages, these days formed a coherent and widely observed season of remembrance, known in medieval England as “Hallowtide”. The two days had distinct but related aims: All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.

Caring for the dead wasn’t just for Hallowtide, though. In the Middle Ages, looking after the dead was a duty incumbent on believers all year round. Prayer for the dead, known and unknown, was a regular feature of medieval devotion, and was seen as an important act of charity. Believers were encouraged to pray for the souls of those they had known in life — their family, godparents, or benefactors — but also for those whom they had not personally known, but with whom they shared some connection: deceased members of their professional guild, or all the dead buried in their parish church. And they were asked to pray too, as many still do today, for those who had no one else to pray for them. No one was to be left alone in death.


At the Reformation, many of these practices by which people had sustained a relationship with the dead were banned. All Saints’ Day survived in a circumscribed form, but All Souls’ Day was suppressed; it was no longer permitted to pray for the dead or say masses for their souls. This was a huge cultural shift, and some historians have seen it as the most significant and painful rupture of the Reformation, violently severing the links between the living and the dead. It meant, in the words of the historian Greg Walker, “an end to those spiritual continuities that had hitherto bound the generations of the living and the dead together in mutually supportive collaboration, and tied both to the mediation of the saints in heaven”.

I hadn’t known that the Reformation is what ended these practices in the Protestant part of Christendom, though I suppose if I had thought about it for half a second, I would have realized it. To lose that kinship with our ancestors is part of what modernity has taken from us. Believing that they are still with us in some way, and that we continue to have a relationship of respect for and love of them, means that their memory binds us and anchors us. Psychologists have discovered that children who have lost a parent to death are more emotionally stable than children who have lost a parent to abandonment. The theory is that the children reason that the dead parent did not reject them willingly, and that they assume the missing parent still watches over them.

In a similar way, to live with an awareness of our ancestors, and a felt religious obligation to care for them (through prayer and tending their grave) is a powerful way of marking the authority of the past over the present. The late social anthropologist Paul Connerton observed that a society’s identity depended in part on collective rituals that made real a sense of connection to that society’s sacred narrative. To go to the graves of our beloved dead on All Souls’ Day is in this sense a defense of identity. We are them and they are us, in a living communion that extends beyond the bounds of mortality. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead,” and what is All Souls’ Day but a communal pledge of loyalty to our families, and the assurance that in some sense, they still have a say over our life together?

Having lost the tradition of All Souls’ Day, we have also lost a binding sense of obligation to the past. This is a common lament of cultural conservatives, acutely felt now, when savage street moralists seek to purge the recollection of the illustrious dead from collective memory. Whatever you think of the deeds of this or that once-great figure driven from his plinth by progressive odium, surely the repudiation of pietas is a sign of our degradation. Pietas is a cardinal virtue of classical Rome, defined by Cicero as “justice towards the gods.” Pietas was the requirement of ritual respect that all Roman citizens were expected to show to Rome’s deities, the fatherland, and one’s ancestors.

In 1957, Walker Percy wrote a strong rebuttal letter to America, the Jesuit magazine, commenting on an essay that had been fiercely critical of the South. Percy was himself a racial integrationist (and for his efforts had the Klan do him the honor of burning a cross on his front lawn in Covington), but he could not stand the haughty attitude of the Northerner who penned the piece. In fact, Percy thought it set back the just cause of ending segregation. He wrote, in part:

Percy goes on to roll his eyes at the idea that “the best imaginable society [is] a countrywide Levittown in which everyone is a good liberal ashamed of his past.” I’ve thought a lot about Percy’s letter this year, when being not just a good liberal, but a decent person, suddenly required one to feel intense shame towards the past, such that no memory of it could be allowed to stand. Back when they were taking down Confederate monuments, I did not like it, simply because there’s something in me that recoils from iconoclasm of any sort, but I reconciled myself to it. This was not only because the right side won the Civil War, but also because I felt that it was a sign of respect for black Americans and their suffering, and recognition of the true horror of slavery.

Seeing what the Left has done with this, though, has given me second thoughts. I’m talking about them wanting to tear down every statue of anybody who lived more than five minutes ago. They’re even going after the future, as we see in this exchange between the black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams and a hard-left US magazine:

Later, TCW tweeted:

That last line states a profound truth. I wonder to what extent progressives’ fanaticism towards the past is the result of losing the cultural habit of remembering the dead, and of training ourselves to feel some sense of connection with them. We moderns — and we Americans are the quintessential moderns — regard the past as a useless appendage, as a drag on the free exercise of our will. But as the people who withstood Soviet totalitarianism learned, cultural memory of the past was essential to the resistance — and this is why the controllers tried to erase it.

From my book Live Not By Lies:

To those who want to keep cultural memory alive, Connerton warns that it is not enough to pass on historical information to the young. The truths carried by tradition must be lived out subjectively. That is, they must not only be studied but also embodied in shared social practices—words, certainly, but more important, deeds. Communities must have “living models” of men and women who enact these truths in their daily lives. Nothing else works.

Tamás Sályi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.

The idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty has been poison for Hungarians, he believes. About progressives today, Sályi says, “I think they really believe that if they erase all memory of the past, and turn everyone into newborn babies, then they can write whatever they want on that blank slate. If you think about it, it’s not so easy to manipulate people who know who they are, rooted in tradition.”

True. This is why Hannah Arendt described the totalitarian personality as “the completely isolated human being.” A person cut off from history is a person who is almost powerless against power.

When I go into the country cemetery where all my people are buried, I know that I am not entering into a memorial gallery of saints, necessarily, but of the mortal remains of souls who once lived in this country town, and who made me and my generation possible. When I was a younger man, I would go there with something of a chip on my shoulder, and wield grudges I had against some buried there. That man, he was a notorious Klansman. That man, they said to have beaten his wife and kids. That woman cheated my kinsman, the story goes, and got away with it. That kind of thing. The last time I was there, lighting Christmas Eve candles in a modest ritual my mom has us do every year, I placed a candle before the tombstone of the woman of our town who cheated my kinsman, and prayed for her. Why not? I have lived long enough now to know how much I need mercy, and what a precious thing mercy is. Those poor sinners, if only they knew in life what they know in death. The same will be true of me one day. I hope no one visits my grave with hate in their heart. I hope they visit my grave to say a prayer for me.

I’m ashamed to tell you that I did not drive up to the country to pray at the graves of my ancestors on this All Souls’ Day. I can’t say it’s because I’m Orthodox, and the Orthodox don’t have that particular tradition (it does, but not on November 2). I didn’t do it because it didn’t occur to me. People in my part of the world don’t do this. We should go. I should have gone. I have a responsibility not only to the dead to go, but to my own children, to be a “living model” for them as a witness to a culture that despises its dead, and which will therefore not survive, nor deserve to.

Recall Philip Larkin’s great poem Church Going, about the meaning of old churches in an unbelieving age, and think of the graves of your ancestors. It ends like this:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Good luck, everybody, with Election Day. Remember that this too shall pass. I’m about to head to bed here in Baton Rouge. Before I do, I’m going to say some prayers for my beloved ancestors.